“Am I young for a father?” Dino Versini (Walter Chiari) asks his girlfriend, Elsa (Michèle Mercier), in the opening scene of Dino Risi’s 1964 film The Thursday (originally Il giovedì). Dino is forty and looks it, so the inquiry seems more than a little silly. Is it simple vanity that compels him to pose this question, a barely veiled attempt to elicit a compliment on his appearance, or does it spring from a deeper insecurity? It’s just possible, also, that at least some part of him genuinely regards himself as someone too youthful to be the parent of an eight-year-old-boy. Today, for the first time since his marriage broke up five years ago, he’s going to spend time with his son, Robertino (Roberto Ciccolini). Although he may not realize it yet, their reunion will force him to confront both his image of himself and the image he tries to project to the world — whatever difference there may be between them.
Robertino is only in Rome temporarily, staying at a hotel with his mother (Carole Walker) and his no-nonsense Swiss governess (Else Sandom); normally, they live abroad, traveling frequently and sometimes moving from town to town. Even taking the geographical separation into account, Dino has hardly been an ideal father. He’s quick with an excuse when Robertino asks why he doesn’t write. “It’s because the lawyer has forbidden me any kind of direct contact with your mother. I was not to see her or write to her,” he explains. “You know, divorce is a complicated thing. But I sent you a lot of postcards.” “Three,” Robertino replies. Dino thinks his son is still seven instead of eight, he’s off by a good six months when attempting to recall the date of his birthday, and he seemingly has no idea what he looks like, initially approaching the wrong child in the hotel lobby (much to that child’s alarm). The boy doesn’t even bear Dino’s surname anymore — he’s now Robertino Malden, Malden presumably being his mother’s maiden name. Father and son may as well be total strangers to each other.
To a certain extent, The Thursday feels like a kind of sister piece to Risi’s Il Sorpasso, released two years earlier. Once again, there’s an odd couple pairing of a rather brash, free-spirited, forty-ish extrovert (and an absentee father, to boot) with a younger, more serious-minded introvert; once again, the two central characters get to know each other over the course of a day or so as they drive around in a convertible, eat, visit relatives, go to the beach. Even the names are similar: Il Sorpasso‘s Bruno becomes Dino, its Roberto becomes Robertino. Bruno and Roberto, however, are mere acquaintances, thrown together by chance at the beginning of the film when the former asks the latter for the use of his phone. The father-son element in The Thursday creates a different dynamic — a bit sweeter, a bit warmer, and perhaps more obviously consequential from the start.
Whether in spite or because of his years of apparent indifference toward his son, Dino is well aware of the importance of this day. He seems determined to make a success of it — and to make a success of himself in the process. Before going to the hotel to pick up Robertino, he stops at a garage in order to rent a car that he can pass off as his own. Naturally, the practical little Fiat Seicento that the man working there offers to him won’t do the trick. “Do you expect me to drive my son around in a Seicento?” No, it has to be an American car, a big gas-guzzling convertible that should cost him the entire 20,000 lire he’s just borrowed from Elsa; instead, he convinces the man to take his watch as security. “It’s a 150,000 lire Swiss watch. Take care of it,” he instructs him — failing to mention that it’s defective, and that it only cost him a fraction of its alleged value. He’s a habitual, borderline pathological liar. Sometimes his lying serves a practical purpose, as in this example, but more often than not it’s simply a desperate attempt to impress, no matter how trivial and pointless the falsehood. To Elsa, for instance, he claims that the man at the garage is a friend and never accepts money from him (though the second half of that might be true, in a sense); later, he tells her over the phone that he and Robertino are at the bar of the Hotel Hilton when he’s actually calling from a cramped, decidedly unpretentious eatery. On occasion, his lies are more flamboyant. When his mother (Emma Baron) notes that Dino’s brother has promised her a television for Christmas, Dino wastes no time in one-upping his sibling: he’s going to buy her a big TV with a remote control, and a washing machine, and a refrigerator. “I’ll buy them all at once, so I’ll get a big discount,” he explains. Although she acts as if she believes him, she’s the one who ends up giving him money.
To what extent is Dino aware that he isn’t the man he pretends to be? Obviously, he knows perfectly well that many of his lies bear no relation to reality (the bit about the Hotel Hilton bar, for example), yet in some cases the lines between fact and fiction may not be quite so clear to him. Sure, he can’t afford to purchase those appliances for his mother at the moment, but if he can just make the right deal, find the right line of business, meet the right person, if he can finally get his lucky break… This image he tries to cultivate — big-spending, high-living, popular, important, successful — seems to spring from an odd melange of insecurity, naive optimism and self-delusion. He’s not that man, but in his mind he could be. Too bad for him that virtually everybody around him sees through his posturing right away. Even a total stranger who hears him pretending to continue his telephone conversation with Elsa after she cuts him off has no problem grasping the truth. “She hung up,” the man says. “Yes, she hung up,” Dino gripes.
The only person who might be expected to buy into Dino’s idealized self-image (besides Dino himself) is Robertino. For one thing, he’s a child; for another, he’s Dino’s child, someone with a natural tendency to admire him — at least in theory. Despite his numerous faults, Dino does his best to be a good father during his time with Robertino. He tries to have fun with him, taking him to the amusement park, to the zoo, to the beach; he talks to him, asks him questions, attempts to get to know him better; he’s protective, maybe even overprotective at times, becoming alarmed when the boy holds his breath for as long as possible or wanders a short distance away on the beach. Admirable though all of this is, he also pours an undue amount of energy and effort into impressing his son. When they go to a toy store, he won’t buy the cheap compass that catches Robertino’s eye — he has to buy the most expensive Meccano building set available, the big one that his parents apparently couldn’t afford when he was a child (and that he can’t afford now). Later, when Robertino gets involved in a soccer game with a group of boys around his age, Dino can’t resist joining in, uninvited, hijacking the ball in order to show off his skills to the less-than-thrilled children. Inevitably, too, he resorts to dishonesty again and again. One of his favorite tricks is claiming that people — acquaintances, complete strangers or whatever the truth may be — are his friends, close friends, and illustrious, powerful figures at that. He also engages in more elaborate lies, most notably when he tells Robertino about how he broke out of a prison camp in India during World War II. (“There were eighty-seven of us. Only important people,” he says. Conveniently, he’s the sole survivor.) Although Robertino takes an interest in this dramatic tale involving a secret tunnel and a motorcycle jump over barbed wire, he can’t help noticing something familiar in it. “It’s a very moving story,” he writes in his diary. “He must have told it to the Americans, ’cause it’s very much like The Great Escape. If I think about it, it really is the exact same story.”
Robertino is no easy dupe. A serious, observant, intelligent boy who can speak three languages, he has precious little difficulty in seeing his father for what he really is. There’s a moment early on when the two are in the car after leaving the hotel, alone together for the first time. Robertino turns to look at Dino, studies him for a moment — his grave, steady gaze clearly unnerving his father, who attempts in vain to appear unfazed — then frowns and shakes his head. Even if Dino were all that he pretends to be, Robertino doesn’t come across as someone to be impressed easily. His mother works in public relations and appears to have made a great success of it; perhaps, in a less flashy and ostentatious way, she is in reality what her ex-husband is in fantasy. Financially secure, at the very least, she’s able to give her son every toy he could want (he already owns most of the items that Dino suggests at the toy store), to hire a governess for him, to take him all over Europe. Dino asks the boy whether his mother owns a car. “Yes, a Seicento,” he replies. Dino is amused until Robertino adds, “For long trips, we have a Mercedes.” There’s also the matter of her boyfriend, the oft-mentioned “Uncle Eric,” owner of a chemical plant and a jet; he even blows smoke rings better than Dino. (“It’s windy. You can’t make them today. And besides, it’s tough with filter cigarettes.”) Naturally, all of this deepens Dino’s feelings of inadequacy and his need to build himself up through lies.
Still, for all of its comforts and privileges, Robertino’s highly regulated life is a rather solitary affair. When Dino suggests taking him back to the hotel for lunch, the boy points out that his mother will be away until evening and the governess has the day off, though it’s not a problem. “I’ll eat alone,” he says, and when Dino asks what he means, he answers, “I always eat alone.” He talks about how he once intended to run away because he was going to have to move to a new town and leave his only friend behind. “At first, I wanted to die,” he says — a remark that visibly startles his father. Perhaps this is mere childish hyperbole, but death pops up in his conversation with troubling frequency: he informs Dino that good soldiers kill themselves rather than being taken prisoner, plots to murder his principal with a poisoned notebook, talks about trying to die and take on other lives in the manner of Jack London’s The Star Rover, recalls seeing a car drive into a canal in Amsterdam. (“All dead,” he says with a smile when asked about the passengers.) Again, there’s a childish quality to a good bit of this, but one can’t help feeling that in some respects he’s old before his time — which makes him the opposite of his father.
Dino’s first lines in the film — once Elsa finally manages to wake him up, like a mother trying to drag her child out of bed and send him off to school — are revealing: “I was just having a superb dream. Onassis, on his knees, was asking me for money.” For most people, a dream like that is just a dream, something absurd and ethereal that rapidly disintegrates in the light of day; for Dino, it’s a legitimate goal. His working (or “working”) life is a series of ill-starred, ill-conceived business ventures and get-rich-quick schemes. At present, he’s trying to sell Encyclopedia Britannica sets, “twenty-four volumes, all in English,” without success. “About the encyclopedia: no one wants it,” says an acquaintance at the beach the instant Dino introduces him to Robertino as his “best friend.” Elsa is able to rattle off a sizable list of failures just from the time that she’s known him: an electrical goods store, a driving school, the encyclopedia, breeding fishing worms. “I have had good ideas, but I was unlucky,” he insists.
Tired of supporting him and getting nothing in return, tired of “playing the eternal lovers,” especially now that his marriage has been annulled and they could potentially wed, Elsa has spoken to Mr. Santoni, her chief of staff, and obtained a steady job for Dino. He’ll earn 65,000 lire a month to start — not a particularly impressive salary (she earns 180,000), but dependable and far better than nothing. Of course, he balks at the idea. “I’m not the kind to be stuck in an office, waiting for the 27th of the month. I prefer uncertainty, but having the possibility of making a lot at once.” He talks about one of his current plans, a gas station on the highway that will be so successful that it will allow him to open a bar, then a car wash, then a motel, all within a year. “And should I give up a forty-room motel for Mr. Santoni’s 65,000 lire a month?” He might complain that it’s humiliating to have to borrow money from her for his day with Robertino (right before asking for twice what she offers), but it’s better than having to grow up, take responsibility and accept that life can’t always be an adventure — and that no rich stranger is likely to approach him out of the blue and offer him a million dollars to go to America and buy an oil tanker on his behalf. Dino is willing to wait for his luck to turn, but for Elsa, his refusal to accept the job is the last straw. “I’m not waiting anymore,” she tells him, storming off. In typical Dino fashion he attempts to twist the story to his advantage when discussing it with Robertino afterwards: he broke up with her, she’s selfish and has a difficult character, all of the women he’s been involved with have bossed him around. When he toasts “man’s independence,” the irony is almost too much to bear. Does he recognize it, or has he managed to blind himself to the truth of his situation?
In a changing hut at the beach, Dino notices a scar by Robertino’s hip and learns that, though no one bothered to inform him, his son had an operation the year before for a near-fatal case of appendicitis and peritonitis. “Maybe I’m dead, and everything happening is just a dream,” Robertino says, then reconsiders: “But no, I’ve got the scar.” It may be that for the past five years, Robertino himself was a sort of dream to Dino — a son only in theory, absent from his life and largely absent from his thoughts as well — yet now here he is in the flesh, concrete, undeniable. Lovable. Despite their long estrangement, a shaky start and numerous setbacks along the way, this man-child and this child-man develop a real bond throughout the day. Robertino needs attention, affection and fun, which Dino can provide (for one day, anyway, even if he can’t provide in other ways), and Dino needs someone for whom he can be — must be — responsible. By the end, just after the mortifying failure of yet another money-making scheme forces Dino into at least momentary honesty, Robertino asks if they might live together. Dino immediately starts making plans: they’ll get an apartment and a dog, wake up as late as they want, go on trips all over the world. Robertino (whose idea of sleeping in is getting up at seven) raises practical objections. “Won’t I go to school?” he asks, and he points out that “it costs money, traveling.” Dino has solutions — he can teach Robertino everything because school isn’t important, they can set up a travel agency and travel for free — but one gets the sense that Robertino doesn’t quite believe in them, and that deep down Dino doesn’t either. Maybe he’s starting to realize that if he wants a future with his son, or with Elsa, he’s finally going to have to wake up.
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